THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY
(Disclaimer: I have no business connection with JOAN. My only purpose in writing this story is to have fun and maybe share it)
(Author's Note: This story is set midway through the first season.)
"The complex number system is complete," said the algebra textbook. "This means that when you add, subtract, multiply, or divide complex numbers, or take a root, the result is another complex number. You never end up outside the system."
To which Joan's reaction was: "So what?"
"Don't diss mathematics," said a high-pitched voice behind Joan, making her jump. "As Galileo put it, it's the language in which I wrote the universe."
Joan was in the bookstore, at her part-time job. On this particular evening there were no customers, and Joan had decided to get a head start on her math homework. But apparently Joan was not as alone as she thought.
She spun around and found herself starting at God in the form of an oddly dressed little girl.
"Please don't sneak up on me like that."
"Technically, I don't sneak," said Little Girl God. "I am always present everywhere."
"Whatever. I know I'm never going to win an argument with You. But if You have a mission that involves math, You'd better recruit Luke as your helper. Or Glynis, if it has to be a girl." She had never known just why God had chosen her and no one else to be Her helper – whether gender was important, or IQ (probably not) or whatnot.
"I do have a mission for you, but it doesn't require math. Just a book."
Little Girl God disappeared among the bookstore shelves, and came back with a slender volume which She showed Joan.
"'The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius'. Never heard of it."
"Few people nowadays have. So I'll explain the background. A millennium and a half ago (but only a moment and a half in My sight) the barbarians invaded the Roman Empire and took over Italy. The wisest man in Rome at the time was a scholar named Boethius, who practiced Christianity, but was also devoted to Greek philosophy. He tried to share his knowledge with the barbarian warlord, but ended up rubbing him the wrong way, and the warlord threw him in prison. I want you to cheer him up."
"Huh? All this happened around 500 AD or so? How am I supposed to get there? Or then, or whatever?"
"I'll take care of it. Just start reading the book."
Joan sat down at the table, pushed the damned algebra book aside, and opened the new book. At least it gave her an excuse to put off doing her math homework.
Two people seemed to be having a conversation – and oddly enough, they zigzagged between poetry and prose, like a Shakespeare play or a musical. Then suddenly the bookstore vanished, and she found herself in a dirt road.
It was not a pleasant environment. Surrounding her were poorly built shacks of wood; a few had hand-painted signs, in what looked like Latin – they were probably shops, with living quarters above them. The street was very dusty, and she saw nasty clumps of excrement scattered about – probably horse droppings. In 500 AD horses would be the main form of transportation, and it didn't seem to occur to anybody to clean up after them.
Little Girl God was standing beside her, and didn't seem upset by the squalor at all. Maybe, in comparison with heaven, all human environments looked shabby. "Head for the castle. That's where the dungeon entrance is located, in back."
Joan did not have to be told where the castle was. Looking up, she saw exactly one stone structure rising among the shacks. It figured that the warlord would pick the only decent dwelling in the town.
She walked the few blocks, watching her step as she did. She passed a few people, and was struck by how small and spindly they looked. Mr. Driesbach had mentioned in history class that Americans of the 20th century and after were better nourished than most people in history, and that it was reflected in better physiques.
On reaching the castle she found that she was facing a mere stone wall; she was on its side, and it looked like the castle builders didn't provide a lot of doors. This castle was probably intended partly as a fortress, and its owners didn't want it to be easy to get in. Little Girl God advised Joan to turn left.
She knew she had found the prison area when she saw a couple of pillories outside a door. In her own day pillories were jokes; even Disney World had one. People thought it was cool to put their heads and hands in oversize holes and get their picture taken, then they went off to do something else fun. But these were the real things, designed to hurt people. Between the pillories was an iron post, with chains hanging from the top. Joan didn't want to know what happened to people who got chained to it.
The door, not surprisingly, was locked. "How do I get in?" Joan asked.
"Walk through the door," the Little Girl said, in the same casual tone she had used when she said turn left.
Joan closed her eyes, walked forward, and found that she didn't bump into anything. She was inside the dungeon section.
Little Girl God showed her the way to the proper cell. Then she vanished, to Joan's dismay. Joan found herself alone in a dismal cell, staring at an old man.
Somehow she expected someone grand-looking, like Gandalf in the LORD OF THE RINGS movie. What she saw was a small old man with a scraggly beard, staring at the floor. People don't look their best in jail, she reminded herself.
Boethius looked up, started, and stared at Joan in awe. Joan wondered what he thought he was seeing. She wished she was wearing something more impressive than her usual blue jeans. Perhaps God had changed her form, disguising her the way She usually disguised Herself, but for the opposite reason. To make an ordinary girl look dazzling.
"Are you an emissary from heaven?" asked the old man.
Presumably he was speaking Latin, but Joan understood him. God was working miracles in the background. She tried to concentrate on the ideas expressed.
"Yes. I was sent to cheer you up."
"Do not try to remind me of happier times in the past. In times of misery, nothing is more painful than to remember when times were happy. My life's work is ruined." He shook his head slowly.
"God did not only send us great prophets and his Son," he went on. "He also sent us great thinkers, to offer a wisdom of their own. All my life I have tried to keep alive the thoughts of great men of the past – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. But I have failed to find anybody interested in carrying on my scholarship. When I die, which may be quite soon if the King has his way, the great thinkers of the past will be forgotten, and mankind will live in darkness."
Joan realized that Boethius was living at the start of the Dark Ages, and knew it. But he had no way of knowing that Europe would rise up again, and to him, Europe was "mankind". Other peoples were literally beyond his horizon.
"I tried to interest people in philosophy, but they thought I was trying to tempt them into pagan error. They are afraid to study it. My own death will seem a warning to them."
"No!" Joan insisted. "These are bad times, but they won't last forever. People will read the philosophers again, learn to think like them, even improve on their teachings." Joan thought of her brother, and the way he practically worshipped Einstein. "Someday, people will learn to fly through the air, or rush across the land faster than a horse. They'll be able to talk to somebody a thousand miles away, and walk on the moon. All due to what the philosophers started."
He looked at her with hope. "You know the future?" He sounded uncertain.
"Part of it. God doesn't tell me everything," Joan admitted.
"I've often thought fate was blind, a wheel of fortune, spinning, spinning. It lifts you up into the air and then it dashes you to the ground. But God has a plan?"
"I'm confident that He does," said Joan, though she wished she knew what it was. She had a vague notion that He, or She, was training her to do something great in the future, that the confusing missions were just preparation. But the old man interpreted her statement in relation to himself, and Joan let him.
"Then my life had meaning! Thanks be to God." He looked around the cell. "They still allow me quills and paper to write my friends. Perhaps I can still win somebody to philosophy, by the power of my pen."
He picked up a quill and stared at it, already lost in thought. Joan realized that her visit was over.
Joan found herself back in the bookstore. Although she had controlled herself in the cell, she let herself cry now. Then she reached for her algebra textbook. If knowledge was more important to Boethius than his own life-
The next day, after math class, she had history. Joan had hated history class, ever since the teacher had accused her of cheating on a test. But today she listened avidly.
"I want to tell you of an incident in history that was very important, but is almost forgotten today," said Driesbach. "It happened shortly after the barbarian invasions into Italy. Intellectual life was very low. Most scholars had flocked to the new Imperial capital, Byzantium. The barbarians were mostly illiterate. The Church was suspicious of Greek philosophy as a relic of paganism."
"One of the remaining scholars, a man named Boethius, angered the barbarian warlord, and was sentenced to death. But before he died, he spent his remaining time pouring his knowledge into a book, which he called the Consolation of Philosophy, and it had an immense effect. To the people of the time, he was a martyr, and his last thoughts were important. The Church decided that if the wisdom of the Greeks was good enough for Boethius, it was good enough for them. Eventually they even decided that it was a holy duty to preserve the knowledge of the past, and monks were encouraged to copy the ancient documents. Together with the knowledge preserved by the Arabs when they took over the former Greek territories of the East, they enabled much of ancient literature to survive into modern times. Thanks largely to Boethius."
"I'd like to point out a peculiar feature of the book. According to Boethius, he was inspired to write the book by a vision of a supernatural woman. He doesn't say who the woman was – a Christian angel, or maybe a pagan muse. Most likely she was just a literary symbol."
No, thought Joan, I don't think so—
After work she had another stint in the bookstore, and another fallow period when no customers were in the shop.
"Reading Consolation of Philosophy, Joan?" said an elderly voice.
Joan didn't start at the avatar who, this time, was Old Lady God. She had sort of been expecting Someone to pop up. "Yeah. I'm puzzled by a couple of things, though."
"Just what happened? At first I just thought I was in a book re-enacting the story. Or did I actually go back in time and MAKE it happen? It would not have occurred without me?"
"Let's just say that you are in a story, Joan. But My stories are real."
Joan didn't understand that, but suspected that she would get no better explanation. "There's another thing. I'm reading his conversations with 'Lady Philosophy', all those lessons. But Lady Philosophy was me, and I didn't say any of that. I don't even UNDERSTAND half of what she's talking about!"
"Literary license, Joan. Back then a philosopher would customarily present his ideas as a revelation from a divinity or a hero – an angel, a muse, or a great man like Plato's Socrates. Having been inspired by you, Boethius decided to make you the vehicle of his teachings, which in reality had been the result of a lifetime of study."
"So I changed history by cheering up Boethius? That's scary. But also kinda awesome."
"It would be more accurate to say that you closed a loop in history, Joan. But if you want to be awed by what you did, go ahead. You deserve it."
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Boethius was a real historical person, and his book was real. My only change in the story was having a time-travelling Joan play the role of Lady Philosophy in the book.)
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: "In times of misery, nothing is more painful than to remember when times were happy" is from Boethius' writing and can be found in quotation books. It is often misattributed to Dante, who quoted it in the Divine Comedy. Boethius' book also invented the term "Wheel of Fortune")
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: The opening sentence about complex numbers is from a math textbook, An Imaginary Tale, by Paul Nahin )